This Grisly Twilight Zone Accident Almost Sent a Movie Director to Jail


Summary

  • Safety on film sets must be a top priority for all involved, as tragic accidents like those on
    Rust
    and in the past are a harsh reminder.
  • The Twilight Zone
    accident was a result of negligence, with illegal hiring, lack of safety measures, and poor decision-making leading to the deaths.
  • John Landis escaped major repercussions, but the industry made strides in safety reforms to prevent similar tragedies in the future.



The recent death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins from a gunshot wound on the set of the film Rust has brought safety on film sets back into the spotlight. The fatal accident was a stark reminder of the risks taken on set every day, not just by stunt performers – but by actors and crew members. Rust was a painful conjurer of past incidents, like the gun death of Brandon Lee on the set of The Crow and perhaps the most notorious on-set deaths ever: those of actor Vic Morrow and two young children during the shooting of Twilight Zone: The Movie.


On July 23, 1982, during the shooting of a Vietnam War scene in Twilight Zone: The Movie’s segment “Time Out,” a low-flying helicopter hovered above actor Morrow as he carried two illegally hired children through a river. When a pyrotechnic mortar exploded below, the helicopter lost control, crashing into the river. The helicopter’s rotor decapitated Vic Morrow and one of the children, Myca Dinh Le, and crushed the other, Renee Shin-Yi Chen. The aftermath of the grisly tragedy saw years of civil and criminal litigation, finger-pointing, and threatened to end the career of one of the ’80s most successful movie directors, John Landis.


The Lead-Up to the Twilight Zone Accident


John Landis enjoyed massive success early in his career, directing Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and the horror-comedy An American Werewolf in London. All were box-office successes, so it was no surprise when Landis was hired by Steven Spielberg to co-produce Twilight Zone: The Movie and write and direct one of its four segments. Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment would produce the movie under the Warners banner, with Executive Producer Frank Marshall tasked with bringing together all the film’s moving parts.

Spielberg and Landis had been huge fans of The Twilight Zone TV series as children, and both were eager to direct one of the four segments of the anthology film. The two developed a friendship and close working relationship in the lead-up to filming, with Landis tasked with writing and directing the “Time Out” segment.

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“Time Out” was a Dickensian tale where a bigoted man named Bill Connor is supernaturally transported into the position of the Jews and Vietnamese people he discriminates against in the present day – a mid-century Ebenezer Scrooge tale. First Bill Connor finds himself a Jew in Nazi Germany, then is transported to a village in Vietnam as an American helicopter attacks.

Landis Illegally Hired the Child Extras in the Twilight Zone Movie

In the script, Landis had specified a scene where Morrow’s character carries two Vietnamese children through a river to safety under the bombardment of a helicopter and mortar fire. Even in the early ’80s, filming such a scene with actual children raised red flags, and in planning the shoot, Landis and Frank Marshall had to figure out a way to negotiate the director’s vision with child labor laws and safety issues. Moreover, the child extras wouldn’t have been approved to work at night – which the script called for.


Landis, known as a cavalier and often-controlling director on set, flouted the Screen Actors Guild, illegally hiring Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen and paying their families under the table. Spielberg-cohort Frank Marshall, who was effectively Landis’ boss, and Warner Bros. exec Lucy Fisher had reservations about using children in the scene instead of dummies. Seeking more realism and drama, Landis had convinced Frank Marshall and the studio that he wouldn’t be using the children for the actual stunt shots and hadn’t even informed the children’s families of what the scene entailed. Landis’ real plans became apparent once cameras rolled.

The Inherent Risk of the Vietnam Scene in the Twilight Zone Movie


When shooting began the night of the accident, Frank Marshall had assumed that Landis wouldn’t be using the children in potentially dangerous shots. Steven Chain’s book, Fly By Night, provides some insight into the dynamic when cameras began rolling. An excerpt reads that “when the final action began, Frank Marshall told the Warner brass that he was standing next to location manager, Dick Vane and was dumbfounded to see live children in Vic Morrow’s arms as the actor crossed the river.”

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The stage was set for a disaster. Between shooting at night, pyrotechnic effects, a low-flying helicopter, and a 53-year-old actor carrying small children through water, there were many components of risk. Morrow was a veteran actor, having appeared in many Westerns like The Tall Man and Bonanza. He was the father of actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, who would become famous that same summer of ’82 with the release of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Despite Morrow’s laundry list of acting accomplishments, this was still a high-profile role for him.


The Terrifying Twilight Zone Accident Claims Lives

Ironically, flying the helicopter that night was an actual Vietnam veteran, Dorcey Wingo, who would later be named a co-defendant in legal proceedings. Wingo hovered the aircraft above the actors in the river while mortar effects began exploding. When the explosions began, production manager Dan Allingham reportedly told Wingo, “That’s too much. Let’s get out of here,” as the pyrotechnics were exploding perilously close to the chopper. Landis still wanted his shot, overriding Allingham on the walkie-talkies by shouting, “Get lower… lower! Get over!” according to later testimony by crew members.


When pilot Wingo did so, one of the explosions fried the rear rotor of the chopper, sending the aircraft spinning into the river below – killing Vic Morrow and the two children instantly. Standing nearby were the children’s horrified parents, who were invited to the set that night. Executive Producer Frank Marshall dove under a truck and witnessed the disaster and panic but was one of the few to keep a cool head during the altercation, diving into the river to carry the lifeless 6-year-old body of Renee Shin-Yi Chen to shore. Landis, by all accounts, was in a state of shock, inexplicably announcing, “That’s a wrap. Everybody go home,” and by some accounts, attempting to hide the potentially incriminating Panavision film mags.

Landis Callously Invited Himself to Morrow’s Funeral


Both Landis and producer George Folsey Jr. showed up to Morrow’s funeral despite not being invited. Landis even insisted on eulogizing the actor in front of Morrow’s shocked surviving family members, reportedly saying, “Tragedy can strike in an instant, but film is immortal. Vic lives forever. Just before the last take, Vic took me aside to thank me for the opportunity to play this role.” Groans and murmurs could be heard in response to Landis’ extremely cringe speech, even funeral-goers shouting, “Enough!”

Criminal and Civil Cases Drag On for Nearly a Decade

John Landis, George Folsey Jr., Dorcey Wingo, production manager Dan Allingham, and explosives specialist Paul Stewart were tried and acquitted on charges of involuntary manslaughter in a nine-month criminal trial in 1986 and 1987. Warner Bros. provided some legal backing for the higher-ups, but below-the-line employees like helicopter pilot Wingo were left to fend financially for themselves. Vic Morrow’s family, including his acting daughter Jennifer Jason Leigh, received a civil settlement within a year of the accident.


In reading the court transcripts, it’s apparent how much negligence was involved on the part of Landis and Folsey. Myca Dinh Le’s father, Daniel Lee, testified that he heard Landis instructing the helicopter to fly lower. Lee himself had survived the Vietnam War and appeared inconsolable in pictures from Le’s funeral. All four parents testified that they were never told that there would be helicopters or explosives on set. How all five men were acquitted is a subject that has been hotly debated in the ensuing years since the trial.

Warner Bros. and the Unions Reform Safety on Set


If there was one positive to come out of this harrowing accident, it was a joint effort to reform safety measures across the board in the film industry. Warner Bros. set up dedicated safety committees to establish acceptable standards for every component of movie-making, from gunfire to fixed-wing aircraft to smoke and pyrotechnics. The Director’s Guild of America began publishing regular safety bulletins and granted the final call for on-set safety to assistant directors to create checks and balances to override potentially negligent directors like Landis.

Landis’ career suffered little from the stench of his reprehensible actions in Twilight Zone: The Movie. The year after the accident, he directed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video – which was irrefutably one of, if not the most famous music video ever made. He then collaborated with Eddie Murphy on several enormously successful films, including Coming to America. The director still maintains that the Twilight Zone accident was only that – a freak accident for which no one was responsible. In an interview with Fangoria Fright Fest, Landis quipped, “If there was an accident it’s not exciting, it has to be someone’s fault… it’s hard not to become too cynical about this stuff.”


There’s no denying Landis’ talent as a comedy director. He has made some of the most beloved comedies of the last 40 years. The question remains: should he have had the opportunity to do so? Some, like Steven Spielberg, who reportedly ended his friendship with Landis, think not. Twilight Zone: The Movie is streaming on Tubi.



https://movieweb.com/vic-morrow-twilight-zone-accident/